Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S4. EPISODE 2
Featuring Rutger Bregman
What incentivizes human behavior? How many of our problems come from a lack of cash? And how does shame work as a motivator? Join us and Rutger Bregman, author of “Humankind” and “Utopia for Realists,” to talk about balancing a critical eye with the conviction that the world can be improved upon. Plus, we look at the new billions being spent to fight HIV and malaria abroad, Kenya’s Right to Disconnect, and therapeutic psilocybin use in Australia.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I am joined in our fourth season, as in our previous three seasons, by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And we have been, over the past couple of years, been having a series of conversations with people who we think are compelling figures focused on how we solve our collective problems. Doesn’t mean that they are not acutely attuned to those. It doesn’t mean that everybody we talk to is cheery and wakes up with a smile on their face about all the daisies and lilies and chirping birds. It just means that they are, in their way, embracing a sensibility that is not plunging us into despair, but is instead trying to lift us into a collective future that we wanna live in. This is a belief that we have, and I know I’m being repetitive, for those of you who’ve been listening to some of these, but I wanna be repetitive in that creating a collective sensibility of how we go forward into a future of our hopes, not a future of our fears, is an ongoing work that is more about lots of individuals coming together and lots of organizations coming together. The Progress Network is a collection of individuals, and increasingly, we hope, also a network of networks. So it is trying to build critical mass or be one of many voices in a critical mass that I believe, we believe is an essential component to solving problems and creating that future. And that there’s some historical precedent for when societies believe that they are able to solve problems, they’re more able to solve them than when they’re convinced that they can’t. Full stop. So in that spirit, we’re having these conversations and our first interview of the season, Emma will tell you about who he is, but I think in many ways is the perfect iteration of some of these themes that I just attempted to highlight.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Today. We’re gonna talk to Rutger Bregman, who’s a historian and an author. He’s published five books on history, philosophy, and economics. And you may recognize two of them because they were New York Times bestsellers, Humankind, and Utopia for Realists. Those have been translated into more than 40 languages. Bregman has also been twice nominated for the prestigious European Press Prize for his work at The Correspondent, which is an online platform he founded that’s dedicated to constructive and ad-free journalism. So let’s talk to Rutger.
ZK: Rutger Bregman, thank you so much for joining us, and thank you as well for being part of The Progress Network. So you’ve been doing some, I think, quite compelling work over the past decade plus, a little bit of it in Dutch, which I’m, you know, making my way through really slowly word by word. But the, the English translations of Utopia and of Humankind, I think have struck some real resonance around the world, particularly the latest book. And maybe you can talk a little bit about how you sort of came to– ’cause you’re both edgy, right? You know, you’re certainly not without critique of the systems that we exist in, but you’re also hopeful. So maybe as a kind of a delve into Rutger’s personality for a moment, how do you square the edgy with the hopeful?
Rutger Bregman (RB): Yeah, that’s a good question. I think that if you go back in history, progressive used to be quite hopeful, actually. If you think about something like scientific progress, that used to be something that progressives were very excited about. But something happened along the way is that when we think about technology today, it’s mainly doom and gloom that dominates the conversation. And sure, there are some good reasons for that. But as a historian, I always love to point out that yeah, we have made extraordinary progress, and it’s very easy to lose sight of that, especially if you live in an incredibly rich country. I mean, here in the Netherlands, I recently looked this up, if you have a median wage, you are part of the 3.5 richest in the world, right? We have access to riches that, you know, even the King of France in the 17th century couldn’t dream of. I think it’s really important to have that perspective. Yeah, in my work, I’ve always been interested in the phenomenon of how seemingly unrealistic things can become reality. How do we move from utopia to reality. How do we actually make the impossible happen? That’s been fun over the years to focus on that question.
EV: I wanted to drill in a little bit into that question of how we do exactly make the impossible happen, you know, when it comes to incentivizing human behavior. I see this theme coming up in your work generally, is the role of shame, right?
EV: And it was really interesting for me to encounter that in your work because for me, shame seems like the worst kind of incentivizer, right? But I think you have the opposite perspective. So I would be really curious to hear your case for why shame is a good incentivizer of human behavior.
RB: Yeah, yeah. I really think that shame is a quite useful tool, actually. And we are pretty much the only species in the whole animal kingdom with the ability to blush, which is, I think, a fascinating and telling fact that we involuntarily give away our feelings to other members of our species. And that basically helps to establish trust between one another. I think it’s also very disturbing when people are not able to blush anymore. I mean, that’s sometimes true when we think about some of our leaders, right? Think of your favorite politician, and then think of the last time you saw him or her blush. It’s probably a very long time ago. Yeah. I think that shame can sometimes push people in the right directions. So I’ll give you a couple of examples from my personal life. I recently turned vegan, and it was actually because of my mother, who is 65 years old and she’d been eating cheese her whole life, but then she encountered the arguments against the exploitation of cows, and she was like, okay, I’ll stop doing that. And then she called me up and she said, “Rutger, you pretend to be this, you know, this idealistic author, and I see you going on about all these things on television, but you haven’t even turned vegan yourself yet.” So my mother’s very good at shaming me, and that was actually quite effective.
EV: It’s so funny you bring up the veganism example, because, you know, and I don’t mean to insult you in any way, when I think of vegans, I constantly think of them being self-righteous and telling me like, why aren’t you vegan? Why aren’t you vegan?
EV: And to me, personally, it shuts me down. But then again, my mom has never called me up and made that argument, so maybe that’s the difference there.
RB: [Laughs]. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, look, my philosophy would be just whatever works. I think in general, people are often more motivated by, I don’t know, the excitement of doing things better. So in the case of effective altruism, for example, it’s interesting, the philosopher, Peter Singer, who already in the ’70s published a seminal paper about children drowning in a pond, and that people dying in Africa from, say, malaria is morally similar and that we have an obligation to help people very far away. It takes a, what is it, like $4,000 or $5,000 to save one life according to the think tank GiveWell, but that guilt framing of the argument didn’t resonate all that much. I mean, Peter Singer was basically on his own for decades donating half of his salary. People are like, that’s interesting, Peter, that you’re doing that, but we don’t really do that. We’re not like that. And then effective altruism came along, this movement of very rational people who know how to improve the world. And they came up with a different framing like, it’s actually pretty exciting to do good and to do good in a really effective way. Now, I do have some problems with that movement, especially lately, [laughs]. I think the fact that they build a whole movement around this excitement, the opportunity framing of there’s just so much you can do, especially if you do it collectively, isn’t yet more effective. Yeah, I see your argument that there are real limits to the power of shame as well.
ZK: All right, so let’s pick up on that, given that it’s a provocative topic about not just the specific particular crisis that some of the backers of effective altruism had, particularly in the form of, you know, the crypto money and Sam Bankman-Fried and the money that had gone into effective altruism. Obviously, effective altruism as a movement precedes the money, right?
ZK: But then the ideas attracted the money. There is a, I would say, fraught relationship, right? Between the idealism that a lot of people have and a capitalist system that also requires the funding of ideas, right? We don’t live in a world that we lived in a few hundred years ago where there were sort of separate silos between, let’s say, ideas, money, power. Those things tend to commingle in today’s world. And I’m wondering how separate from the obvious critiques of sort of pure venality and pure hypocrisy, how one navigates the– you know, we do live in a world where the more currency ideas have, right? The more backing they have, the more potent they can be, which requires money.
RB: I think this has always been an issue. I was recently reading a lecture that Ralph Nader, the great consumer advocate, gave in the ’60s, 1968 November, at Harvard Law School. And his message to the students back then was basically, you’re about to waste your whole career. You’re about to waste your life because you’re probably gonna work for some, you know, stupid law firm helping big corporations to sell crap to consumers. That’s basically what’s probably gonna happen. But yeah, there is a small chance that you may choose a different direction. And then there was this group of Nader’s Raiders, you know, and we’ve all forgotten about this, obviously, because Nader did some not very smart things around the 2000 election. But what he did in the ’60s and ’70s was extremely impressive. At some point, a third of Harvard Law School applied to work with him to basically fight the good fight. So think for example, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. I mean, the Clean Air Act has saved millions of lives, and the fingerprints of Ralph Nader’s students are all over it. But this has always been an issue. It’s basically often easier to earn a lot of money while you’re not contributing all that much and vice versa. I mean, it’s not always true, but it is quite often true. That doesn’t mean that you should be, how do you say that, as an idealist. You should not be afraid of money or anything like that. If we think of the great movements in history, whether it’s abolitionism or the women’s right movement, or the climate movement, very often there were very wealthy philanthropists who played a very important role in that. Actually, I was recently studying the invention of the birth control pill, which was actually financed by a suffragette and a feminist named Katharine McCormick. Right? She supplied the money that made this incredibly important, maybe one of the most important inventions in all of world history, right? It liberated women basically, and allowed them to control their own fertility. You don’t have to be afraid of money in that respect, but, yeah, it’s often a dilemma, I guess, for young idealistic people when they’re thinking about the rest of their lives.
EV: Rutger, as I was listening to you speak, I started thinking about like, maybe Nader’s a great proponent of the excitement principle that you were talking about. Like, if we get people excited about, you know, the change that we can make, we can get them on board. And then I started thinking about you as a proponent of the excitement principle around taxes [laughs], which also relates to this discussion of money that we’ve been having. And I know that we’ve had some progress recently in the EU. I’m in Greece. You’re in the Netherlands. Around a 15% minimum corporate tax rate. So I’m wondering if you can give us your exciting explanation of what’s happening right now with taxes, and, you know, if we’re going anywhere at all with that.
RB: Of course, yes. Not many people know this, but we’re actually making progress in the fight against tax evasion and tax avoidance. There’s some pretty good news to share. So in 2019, I was invited to Davos and said some things that they didn’t like, and they haven’t invited me back. But since then, if I just look at my own country, the Netherlands, it used to be a huge tax paradise, especially US corporations had stashed hundreds of billions of dollars in the Netherlands tax free. And that’s basically gone right now. The amount of money that goes through the Netherlands towards, say, Bermuda or the Cayman Islands, has been completely like a decline of 85% in the last three years. And what’s now gonna happen is that other countries are gonna follow. It’s gonna be a domino effect because if they don’t do that, then for at least profits that corporations will make in Europe, we’ll do it ourselves. So if the US doesn’t properly implement this minimum corporate tax, it’s basically stealing from US taxpayers, or it’s basically giving the money to European taxpayers, [laughs] in that way, because, yeah, we’ll just top it up. That’s some real progress there because there has been more transparency and some great advocacy by experts, like, for example, Gabriel Zucman or Thomas Piketty, et cetera. This is a funny phenomenon that very often when we start to get angry about something, when something starts to get exposed, that’s the exact moment when we’re already making progress. And it’s when no one’s talking about something, like tax evasion 20 years ago, no one was really thinking about that. That wasn’t a big issue. And that was actually when it was at its worst.
ZK: I know you mentioned off-air that you’re writing a new book about the rise of the abolitionist movement. So I’ve always had a personal negative reaction to true believers of any stripe, even while I recognize that a certain kind of radical true belief often drives history and penetrates or forces a break in the status quo. You know, Nader’s a good example of that. Some of the abolitionists were clearly a good example of that. You know, these were people who were morally black and white, and that drove their passion in a way that was probably necessary in order to end something, you know, that was sort of morally unambiguously wrong. That being said, you know, people like Piketty and people like Zucman have a certain black and white view of wealth taxes in the state that I feel, and I’d like your reaction to this. What it misses is the other side of the ledger, which is, it’s one thing to say that there should be a more equitable– you know, that we should all pay for the commons, essentially, and that we have responsibility to each other. The challenge that I think is legitimate and is often phrased on the right is that the institutions that we have created, the government institutions we’ve created, that are supposed to create that equity are often, at least outside of Northern Europe, woefully incompetent and often venal and corrupt themselves. You substitute one level of corruption, which is I’m not gonna pay for the commons, with another level of either incompetence or corruption, which is we’re gonna take your money and we’re actually not gonna do a very good job taking care of the commons. So like, I feel like both sides of that ledger are essential.
RB: Yes, yes.
ZK: You know, Northern Europe is one of the few– you know, the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Singapore, Taiwan. You know, there are a few examples of countries that seem to get this more right than not, but there are a whole lot more examples of countries that don’t get this right at all.
RB: Yeah, yeah. I see that point. Look, I think that quite often on the left, there’s a lot of talk about wealth redistribution, which is important, but not enough talk about wealth creation, right? Who are the actual wealth creators? And in that respect, what I’ve been trying to do with my work is to reframe that question sometimes to basically just say, look, the real wealth creators are often the maintainers, the teachers, the nurses, the care workers, or those who have these so-called essential jobs, as we’ve come to call them during the pandemic. But yeah, it’s also about the innovators, about the people who come up with new amazing solutions to our problems. And that’s something that– I mean, Ezra Klein recently wrote this in the New York Times, is that too often, the right can all only look nostalgically to the past, and then the left is completely focused on the injustices of the present, but who actually has the courage to look forward? And this has been a frustration I have for a very long time, actually, since the beginning of my career as a writer, is that so often people only know what they’re against, right? They’re against the establishment, against racism, against homophobia, against everything, basically. There was even a book published a couple of years ago by a major left-wing intellectual called Against Everything. But at some point, you also gotta think about what are you actually for? What do you wanna create? I’ve come to call it moral ambition, the yearning and the drive to create a better world and to make an impact. And the most exciting thing about that is that it’s contagious. It’s not about your genetics. It’s not about your biology. It’s not who you are fundamentally as a person. No, it’s an idea. And you can be infected with that idea. It’s something that Tyler Cowen, the economist, said once, that one of the greatest things or most worthwhile things you can do with your life is to basically increase other people’s ambition. And I’ve never forgot that remark, and I’ve been trying to do that ever since, basically [laughs] trying to raise other people’s levels of ambition. Like whenever they say, I have this plan, I say, well do that, but, you know, top it up 50% or something like that. Yeah. I sometimes miss that spirit, among my friends on the left.
EV: I feel like you had done a lot of work on UBI, universal basic income. Another narrative is that if there’s just enough money, you know, everything would be fine, like everything can be solved by money. And I feel like sometimes with UBI, like my personal hesitation around it is that it seems to be presented as a silver bullet, like that certainly there are some people whose problems are caused by money, and if they had more money, the problems would be solved. But there are also people in poverty whose problems are not primarily coming from money, right? You know, if you talk to any person suffering from addiction, they could tell you that money is not gonna solve that problem. So I was wondering if you could talk about that a little bit ’cause you have that famous phrase, poverty isn’t a lack of character, it’s a lack of cash. And I was wondering if you thought about this hesitation I’ve brought up, which I’m sure you have.
RB: Sure. Yeah. So obviously poverty is not the only problem in people’s lives, right? But if you see a building that’s on fire, well, what do you do? The first thing you do is you call the firefighters [laughs], you know, they sprinkle water over it. That’s what you do first. And then you start thinking about all the other problems. And that’s also how I think about poverty. I mean, poverty just makes everything worse. There’s even evidence that, you know, it impedes your cognitive ability. It impedes your ability to think in the long term, to make plans for the future. Sure, there will always be some people who will waste their basic income, but usually, when it comes to richer people, we’re not worried about that. We just call venture capital and we say, oh, sure, go on and [laughs] experiment, try new things. Yes, we should consider basic income as venture capital for the people. I think in general, it will be, a pretty great investment. And especially when it comes to poverty, there’s a lot of evidence that it actually costs us more money. Poverty is– it’s just too expensive. We can’t really afford it. That’s what I always believe. Whenever I am in, say, San Francisco or Los Angeles, I’m always astonished to see so many homeless people on the streets. And what I see there is just an extraordinary waste of human capital. I mean, so many people who could have fulfilling lives and who could go on and contribute to the common good, but there they are. I mean, we have a homeless population in the Netherlands here as well, but you would have to walk around for hours in Amsterdam to see as many homeless people as you see in five minutes in San Francisco, probably.
ZK: But this gets back to something I was saying earlier, which is, you know, particularly in those cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles, the issue is actually not a lack of cash that’s being spent to try to ameliorate the problem. It’s the way the cash is being spent to try to ameliorate the problem. I mean, it’s an extraordinary affluent society. And no matter what its issues are, right? It is in aggregate, an extraordinary affluent society that often spends money publicly in ways that are mind bogglingly stupid.
RB: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
ZK: As opposed to not spending the money at all.
RB: The hypocrisy is astounding as well, right? We’ve all read the, Time to Build essay by Marc Andreessen, and I actually love that piece. I’m like, yeah, let’s build. And then you hear that this is the guy who– he’s spending a lot of money to lobby for no construction in his own neighborhood. Right?
RB: And I don’t want to dunk on Marc Andreessen specifically because maybe we’re like that as well. I mean, this NIMBYism is rampant.
ZK: You know, NIMBY’s been replaced by BANANA. Have you heard the new–
RB: Oh, no, I haven’t heard that.
ZK: So if NIMBY is Not in My Backyard, BANANA is Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone.
EV: [laughs] I haven’t heard that either.
RB: I like that. I like that. Yeah. There’s a really great book by Paul Sabin called Public Citizens about what happened in the US, basically since the ’60s and the ’70s, and about also how progressives and specifically progressive lawyers contributed to this. That’s why I earlier mentioned Ralph Nader. This public advocacy movement had a lot of victories, did a lot of good, but then also created a huge amount of regulations, for example, environmental regulations, that are now being used to block efforts to do something about climate change. It’s very, very ironical. And that’s a real big problem, specifically in the United States. You guys just have way too many lawyers, man. Too many lawyers. If you’re young, and if you’re ambitious and you wanna do something, I mean, the stupidest thing you can do is to go to Harvard Law School. Don’t go there. Don’t do it. I mean, [laughs], do something useful, please. There are just way too many people with the legal mindset. And again, the numbers here are astonishing. 5 of the 10 last presidents went to law school, a third of the House of Representatives, half of the Senate. What’s going on there? These are all people who have been schooled in procedures, in rules, in regulations. They know how to say no. They know how to stop things from happening. And you basically have a whole class of NIMBYs or BANANAs, [laughs]. It’s like the BANANA class. That seems like a big problem to me. There should be some kind of law against lawyers. Look, there’s so many different roles to play in every movement, right? And it’s not enough just to shout on the sidelines or to occupy things, which is necessary as well. We need the Extinction Rebellions as well, but we also need people with like an acceptance of plotting. Is that a word? That you’re just willing to do the homework and to know the nitty gritty and all the bureaucratic details.
ZK: The blocking and tackling about. There are people who just have to do the work. You know, as we wrap up, I wanted to maybe have you highlight a little, because it’s very much in the spirit of The Progress Network, this idea of maybe infectious utopianism or infectious idealism in a world where– Partly why I created this collective is the feeling that we were essentially– you know, we being Western culture, but in many ways, [laughs], one of the downsides of the pandemic, of which there were many, is it kind of plunged everybody everywhere into a kind of collective gloom. Like, there used to be some sort of bifurcation between the gloom in the Western world and the optimism of China or India or elsewhere, and, you know, I still think that’s probably a little more prominent there, but we’re kind of in a, you know, a doomscrolling cycle, not a idealism cycle. You know, I wonder, you know, when you look at Europe now, for instance, post-Brexit with Ukraine, when you look around the world, do you find that you are kind of ally, you’re early abolitionist, you know, a lone voice crying in the wilderness, waiting for a change that you may or may not live to see, or do you feel like there is in fact, a thaw in the global freeze of pessimism?
RB: I think there’s been a massive change in the zeitgeist. I’ve recently went to my old student society where I was a member 10 years ago, 10, 12 years ago. And I was astounded by the difference. I mean, kids, at least here in the Netherlands, are way more idealistic than we were just 10, 15 years ago when it comes to climate, when it comes to inequality, when it comes to the way we treat animals, so much more awareness. I think that’s real progress. And as you said, that can be infectious. I recently wrote a small essay about the psychology of resistance fighters during the Second World War. I was really interested in that question, like, what determined why some people had the courage to hide Jews and others didn’t. And it turns out that there isn’t such a thing as the psychology of the resistance hero. There just isn’t. It’s a complete cross-section of the population. Men, women, young, old, rich, poor, educated, not educated. It’s just, you can’t say anything about that. But there is a sociology of resistance. It turns out that it was highly infectious, and around 96% of people who were asked to join the resistance said yes. I think that’s so liberating, right? You don’t have to be this great person that you’ve always been, ever, you know, since high school or whatever. No. You can be affected by the idea of improving the world and playing your part and being morally ambitious. And what I see, and what I would like to contribute to, is that virus spreading further. And I think that’s what you guys are also doing. So, thanks for your work.
EV: Yeah. This is like the Rutger Bregman, the generous meme instead of Richard Dawkins, the selfish meme, or like the utopian meme or something like that [laughs].
RB: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
EV: So, Rutger, as we totally come to an end here, do you just wanna give us a overview of what you’re working on?
RB: Sure. Yeah. So as a historian, I’ve always been really interested in this question, what does it mean to stand on the right side of history? We can look back on the suffragettes, on the abolitionists, and we’re very impressed with their courage and their fight in the face of, you know, all this evil. And we know the tremendous price that they often had to pay for their activism and for their courage. And then I wonder, who are the abolitionists of today? Who are the people that are now being dismissed as utopians, idiots, or maybe even dangerous activists, but who will be seen by the historians of the future as the heroes? That’s the focus of my next book. I’m interested in what actually made the abolitionists effective? I mean, Zachary, you mentioned that they were, you know, very, very idealistic, but I was actually surprised by how pragmatic they were as well, extremely pragmatic, actually. For example, Thomas Clarkson, one of the main British abolitionists, he was really good at what they call moral reframing, basically used different arguments to defend the same idea. So for example, with the abolition of the slave trade, which he was arguing for, you would guess that they would mainly say, look, the slave trade is horrible because there are so many human beings suffering incredibly, right? So many Africans who are being tortured, blah, blah. That’s what we would assume that the abolitionists said. But actually, they focused on a different kind of argument, especially in British Parliament. Thomas Clarkson discovered that around 20% of the white sailors died during the voyage. The white sailors, actually the perpetrators. And then Thomas Clarkson realized that that would be a much more powerful political argument in Parliament to use. Now, for us, that’s pretty bizarre, right? That they mainly used that argument. But it was super effective. It was one of the reasons why the prime minister at the time was like, oh, now I understand. This slave trade is really bad. 20% of our guys are dying on these voyages? That’s horrific. So, I think that is a really powerful lesson, that in the fight against injustice, winning is our duty, right? It’s really important [laughs] to get these actual results. And that make the case of the British abolitionists really interesting because they were super idealistic, that’s true, but they were very pragmatic as well. They wanted to win.
ZK: Well, I look forward to seeing that arise in like, I guess, the next couple years, right?
RB: Yeah. It will take some time.
ZK: We’ll keep an eye out for it.
RB: It’s a lot of work writing a book.
ZK: Thank you so much for your time and your thoughts and your work, and for being part of The Progress Network. And we will, I hope, continue these conversations over the next months and years.
RB: Thanks so much for having me.
ZK: Emma, that was a provocative conversation with a unusual soul. I’d certainly like this idea, and of course, we would like this idea of ideas being infectious, ideas being something that build to a critical mass, and then suddenly spreads like wildfire in a way that isn’t always expected and not always predictable, and then there you have it, which means that a certain climate of unremitting gloom can suddenly give way to something else. And I like the fact that someone who has a critical and progressive, you know, different from The Progress Network, progressive and kind of the left sense of the word progressive, is not, as Rutger talked about, you know, necessarily purely focusing on problems and what they’re against.
EV: Yeah. He is definitely a rare bird in that way. You know, most people, when they think about the left, they think about the unrelenting focus on all the bad things, [laughs] we need to fix. So he’s rare, and I feel like he also comes to things with a real, like, cheerfulness of demeanor. You know, like sometimes you meet people and they have infectious ideas to share with a demeanor that doesn’t match. But Rutger is like, I don’t know, like you understand why, you know, he’s been so popular and his ideas have caught on, because I think he just really approaches them with this kind of enthusiasm for wanting to do good. And I think he’s right too, that the zeitgeist has started to change around that. I think I’ve seen it in the last couple of years that we’ve launched The Progress Network.
ZK: You know, you and I did an interview with a podcast team that was let’s say younger, and I remember with them at least, some of our attempts to talk about things in a more, you know, not optimistic, but kind of the way that we’re trying to talk about things in the [inaudible] The Progress Network, right? Like more problem solving, more focus on what’s working, more focus on things that are kind of better than we think. That struck a really difficult note with them. You know, they were almost angry and felt, again, that somehow that focus was undermining the urgency of how bad things are. And it would be great to juxtapose the conversation we just had with that sensibility as a way of saying you can simultaneously be urgent about things that are systemically broken and not be completely despairing and dyspeptic.
EV: Yeah. And just keeping perspective, right? Like, it’s remarkable how quickly our perspective starts to warp, just depending, like what Rutger was talking about, if you make median wage, I think he talked specifically about the Netherlands, you’re in the top 3.5% of wealth in the world, right? Like, wow. That means I think he points out that you have a lot of responsibility, and it’s crazy that you could be in that position in the Europe or US or elsewhere, and simultaneously adopt this attitude of almost constant complaint that you see sometimes on the left. And I say that with love, [laughs] you know, I don’t say that to take anyone down, but it’s fascinating how those two things can coexist.
ZK: So shall we turn to what’s going on in the world?
EV: Okay, so our first piece of news that we have for today is actually from a couple months ago, but I think it really passed under the radar. And it has to do with the conversation that we had with Rutger about the power of money. Congress, in a bipartisan fashion, actually voted to increase funding to the global fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. [inaudible] funding from the US grow from 1.6 billion to 2 billion, that’s more than 28% year over year boost. And what’s cool about that is because the way the fund operates, if the US pledges more money, the other countries in the fund are also kind of forced to pledge more money, which just means more money going into something that has been proven to work pretty well. The Global Fund says something like 50 million lives saved over the last, I think maybe 30 years. That hasn’t been super studied, so we don’t know if that number is exactly correct, but a lot of lives have been saved by that money.
Audio Clip: This is all about saving lives. There’s no ambiguity here. Working with partners to ensure that all communities are healthy and strong, at least have a shot at being healthy and strong, that people everywhere can live in dignity. Today, we’ve seen some historic pledges to keep building on this incredible record. Almost 1.6 billion, I think I got it right, euros from France, 1.3 billion from Germany, 1 billion dollars from Japan, 1.2 billion dollars from Canada, 715 million euros from the European Commission, and significant increases in the private sector, Qatar, Republic of Korea, and from nations that themselves receive Global Fund grants, like Malawi and Niger, also contributed. And as I pledged to all of you, the United States will donate $1 billion for every $2 billion committed by the rest of the world.
ZK: And again, that highlights something we’ve talked about two times on the show, and you’ve highlighted in the newsletter, which is the primary focus on what goes on in Washington is all the things that don’t work and the laws not passed, and Congress being broken and sclerotic, and, you know, nothing happens. And we talked to Eric Swalwell, congressman, we talked to Jeff Colyer, former governor of Kansas, we talked to Bob Hertzberg, who was the outgoing Senate majority leader in California, to try to highlight like there are all these bills that are being passed all the time in a bipartisan fashion that we just don’t pay attention to, mostly because they don’t attract controversy. So you get this funding bill for something that most people agree is a good thing, and it doesn’t get news because most people agree it’s a good thing, and therefore it’s not news because everyone agreed, no one fought, there weren’t hyperbolic statements. They just decided this was something we need to spend money on, we need to support globally. There’s a big consensus that this is something that we have the money for, that we should use the money for. And so we’re gonna spend it that way, all of which is great, but then it attracts no notice because it’s sort of seen as uninteresting. And that’s part of the problem.
EV: It’s too simple. There are no hard edges to sink our teeth in too. But [laughs], we’re doing our best here on the podcast. So after that, the right to disconnect might be coming to Africa. So the right to disconnect, for people who don’t know, it’s the laws that are in place for employers not being able to contact employees after hours or on weekends.
Audio Clip: Now soon, it may be difficult for employers to call their employees after official working hours. Nandi senator Samson Cherarkey has introduced amendments to the Employment Act to protect employees from working beyond the stipulated eight working hours or even calling them after hours. The move is however receiving strong opposition in both the Central Organization of Trade Unions and the Federation of Kenya Employers warning that this could lead to job losses and scare away potential investors. But as Brenda Czeda Radido now reports, employees, on the other hand, have welcomed the proposed legislation
EV: Right now, France, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Ireland, and parts of Canada and Australia have enacted laws around this. And now Kenya is gonna be the first African nation to discuss it. So Parliament is discussing it this month. We’ll see if they pass anything, but I think that most people listening to this would probably be in support.
ZK: Does this mean I won’t be able to reach you now?
EV: [laughs] Well, you know, Greece has not signed on. Also, we have a time zone difference going on, which makes things more difficult [laughs].
ZK: Yeah, so how is that gonna work? Which hours will you have a right to disconnect from?
EV: [laughs] Actually, that’s a really good– I didn’t think about that in terms of remote work and how that functions. Let’s say you’re a French employee working outside of France. Can your French employer contact you? I don’t know. I’ll have to look into that.
ZK: Wow. It’s a wrinkle, it’s a disturbance in the force. What’s to do about remote work globally disconnected time zones in a right to disconnect law? Okay, we’re gonna have to table that one for the time being, things to think about going forward.
EV: Yep. And another thing to think about going forward. So this is another trend, very much so on the early side. Switzerland is the only country so far that allows the therapeutic use of psilocybin, so, you know, the stuff that’s in shrooms, the active ingredient in shrooms, and MDMA to treat depression for psilocybin and PTSD with MDMA. They do it in a very limited fashion. And then people listening to the podcast probably know that Oregon in the US also has– they also allow that. Australia just became the next country to allow it.
Audio Clip: MDMA and psilocybin, psychedelics found in magic mushrooms and ecstasy, are now said to be used on patients with mental health conditions across Australia. A former defense force chief has been campaigning to use MDMA on veterans.
The people I work with in my not-for-profit, post-traumatic stress disorder, Australia and New Zealand, tell me that the only way we will ever cure post-traumatic stress disorder in people is the use of psychedelic drugs.
Today’s drug approval will only be prescribed to people with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
EV: Starting in the summertime in 2023, psychiatrists will be able to prescribe MDMA and psilocybin. There’s a lot of rules around that, and they’re kinda like, they’re not sure how exactly it’s all going to work, but they’re in a– It seemed to me like there was a lot of surprise around Australia being essentially the first/second country to do this.
ZK: Yeah, I have to say, one of the things that’s happened in my lifetime that has surprised me perhaps the most is how quickly attitudes about the legalization of formerly illegal drugs has moved culturally. I suppose that and kind of broad acceptance of gay marriage, right? The two things that seemed as late as the early 2000s to be a generation away from having any, you know, major cultural change. And look, I’m not saying that as an advocate of everyone should go out and, you know, take chocolate shrooms. It’s from the perspective of most of these substances, whether they’re legal substances like SSRIs or Valium or MDMA or mushrooms or acid or pot, you know, they’re all abusable and they’re all usable. And they’re usable from both sort of pleasurable reasons, and they’re usable for therapeutic reasons. And figuring out the risks and figuring out the uses is complicated and requires a lot of time, effort, hopefully with some degree of neutrality, meaning without a priori prejudice about where the study of those results will lead. I mean, that’s idealism that I know isn’t happening anytime soon, neutrality in the study of drug side effects.
ZK: It’s not something we’re gonna get to anytime soon, but at least it’s an opening where we’re both simultaneously scrutinizing drugs that are legal, you know, that are FDA-authorized and taking a harder look at are those things potentially harmful even though they’ve been deemed helpful. And on the flip side, looking at things that we’ve thought were harmful and wondering if they could be helpful. And I think that, and kind of a lessening of law enforcement and puritanism and the amount of money and time that we spend creating an endless cycle of incarceration in the United States around the purveyance of, the use of, the selling of, you know, drugs that are classified as illegal. I think all that has been just a massively positive change. A lot more work to do, but still.
EV: It’s funny that you bring up the change because I was just on a podcast and the host was in his 50s or 60s, and I was talking about how I got into Buddhism, which happens to involve some use of psychedelics. And I said something like, you know, nothing hard, just LSD, shrooms kind of thing. And he was like, well, in my day, that was a hard drug. And I was like, well, you know, not anymore. I think, like in my generation for sure, it’s just considered– it does have this flavor of like it helps with psychiatric things. It’s not considered to be that kind of hard drug anymore. And I’m very curious to see where this is gonna go in the next 10, 20 years.
ZK: Right. And the trends clearly are to remove the state’s use of power and violence to enforce a regime that criminalizes the use of these substances, which is very different than saying you should use them, right? The non-criminalization of alcohol is not an invocation of everyone should go drink. It’s simply saying that this is not an area where the state should be involved and, you know, creating cycles of crime and punishment around the use of them. So I think that’s an incredibly positive development in the world today. Huzzah.
EV: Yeah, huzzah. And Australia sounds like it’s being very careful about it, for those who may be hearing this and worrying about it. But if you’re an Australian, you may be able to ask your psychiatrist about it.
ZK: There you go.
EV: [Laughs] That’s it for today.
ZK: We look forward to engaging all of you for the next months as we continue these conversations. We’re certainly here for suggestions. So go onto theprogressnetwork.org site and if you wanna send us ideas in addition to signing up for the newsletter, in addition to listening to the podcast, we are, as they say, all ears.
EV: Hope to hear from you. And thank you, Zachary.
ZK: Thanks, Emma. Until next time.
EV: What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
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